The Telegraph - June 4/2004 Badminton's golden girl is leaving nothing to chance By Sarah Edworthy Gail Emms has put her Olympic blinkers on. "This is it," she declared, having flown in from a few days off in Barcelona, where she watched hockey's European Cup final with friends, tanned her legs on the beach and drank her last drop of alcohol until the Athens campaign is over. For the next eight weeks, bar a short team-camp in Wales, the bubbly 26-year-old will be cocooned inside the National Badminton Centre in Milton Keynes, practising on-court skills in the hall with its sickly, peppermint-green walls. During intense, daily, two-hour sessions with coach, Andy Wood, the speed of her reactions and venomous power of her strokes all wrought with a swing of a blonde ponytail and a Chris Evert-like flexed left wrist will mesmerise observers still stuck with the image of her sport as something Margot Leadbetter might play, fluttering around in the church hall on a cold Monday evening. As well as studying tactical analyses of Olympic opponents, Emms returns every afternoon for a further two hours of physical work: weight training, interval running and circuits. "Physical sessions are hard at the moment. I couldn't move during the first week," she laughed. "But I'm determined to get into the best possible shape." Every detail counts. From next week, the temperature in the hall will be raised gradually to help the athletes acclimatise to the August conditions they will experience in Athens. Lars Sologub, the Great Britain badminton team performance director, said: "You hear people say you have to treat the Olympics just as another tournament, but that's exactly what you can't do." For badminton, the Olympics represent a brief, quadrennial showcase of what the sport is about. For the athletes, this is potentially overwhelming. To prepare athletes mentally, Sologub believes in dry-running as much as possible. His squad visited Athens in February, met the key people and familiarised themselves with the facilities. It was after watching the Sydney Olympics on TV, and seeing Simon Archer and Jo Goode win the bronze medal, that Emms redirected her ambition towards medal glory. "I didn't qualify for Sydney. I had come out of university and thought, `Oh, I'll give badminton a go'. But I sat there and said, `That's it. I'm going. I'm winning a medal. I'm not sitting here watching it again'. It really hit me. Until then, I knew I could do it if I worked hard. But I had to decide I wanted to work hard. At junior level, you don't understand how tough it is to make it at senior level. "After Sydney, Jo Goode became pregnant and I had the chance to play alongside Simon. That was my turning point. I learnt so much. We only played together for three or four tournaments in the beginning of 2001. Then Simon injured a knee, and I started to play alongside Nathan Robertson, with whom I'd won the bronze in the world junior championships. We went straight into the top 10." Emms and Robertson go to Athens as European champions, ranked four in the world. "We are seeded to get to the semi-finals. The Koreans, ranked No 1 Ra Kyung Min and Kim Dong Moon haven't lost in over a year and we are drawn to meet them in the semi-finals. The Chinese pair, seeded two, won gold at Sydney, so they're good! So it could be us against the third pair, also Korean, fighting for the bronze medal. And they are beatable." What makes the No 1 Koreans unbeatable? "Skill, speed, everything. Their wrists are so strong. They have so much power in the flick of their forearm. Physically, there is not a millimetre of fat on their bodies. They are so quick in the way they bound and jump. They've grown up in training camps, training six or seven hours a day in a total badminton environment. For us, they've always been the pair to beat. We beat Kim once with another girl, but never with Ra Kyung Min." Mixed doubles is her stronger event, but Emms also competes in the ladies' doubles with Donna Kellogg. "You want to do well in both, but the Chinese girls... you can't get through them. They're like brick walls. You have three- or four-minute rallies just to win a point. They're so muscly. Their smashes are so strong. You feel like crying on court just let us win a point!" Screaming that refrain at her mother, Jan, was exactly how Emms acquired her edge in badminton. "Psycho-competitive" is how she describes her mother, who boasts an impressive sporting CV (centre-forward for the England women's football World Cup in Mexico City and representing Bedfordshire at badminton). "We used to live around the corner from the Bedford and County Badminton Club. My parents were members and, when I was three or four, they cut down a racket. My mum used to throw shuttles at me and I'd try to hit them back. I first beat her when I was 13. She cried. Now, she can't believe she can't get a point off me. "She plays veterans' badminton and dives around the court. She loves it. She goes to Tesco in my official tracksuits. She's coming to Athens with my dad, my stepdad, my brother and his friend, but no one can sit next to her. She'll be a bundle of hyperness. We'll have to stick her in a corner somewhere." Emms was injured when the squad visited Athens earlier this year. That gave her less time on court but more scope to absorb the atmosphere. "Nathan was playing with someone else in the tournament. I had time to think `That will be the court the final is played on. That will be the medal court. That will be me there'. I was also thinking of how my parents will be sitting here and of how proud they are going to be."